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Venice Director Alberto Barbera Explains How He Programmed a Festival in a Pandemic

The festival head explained the safety measures of this year's festival, why Sofia Coppola's film isn't in the lineup, and more.

FILE - In this Sept. 2, 2019 photo, Festival director Alberto Barbera appears at the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award presentation at the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival, Venice, Italy.  Organizers said Tuesday, July 7, that they are forging ahead with plans for its 77th installment, which will include a slightly reduced number of films in the main competition as well as some outdoor and virtual screenings.  (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP, File)

Venice festival director director Alberto Barbera

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

It’s been a strange and challenging year for all film festivals, which made this morning’s announcement of the Venice International Film Festival lineup all the more striking. Somehow, artistic director Alberto Barbera assembled a program of more than 50 films from around the world. It’s the first major fall festival to reveal its full lineup.

While Venice may add titles in the days ahead, it’s clear that this year’s edition won’t look like previous ones. The 2019 selection included splashy premieres with Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, and Meryl Streep; this version of Venice has fewer starry American films, reflecting our current inability to travel to Europe. The Venice selection still offers much to explore with at least one significant Oscar contender, a range of promising new work from international auteurs and newcomers, and nearly 50 percent of its competition featuring women directors.

Barbera spoke by phone with IndieWire about the practical challenges of organizing this year’s festival, some programming highlights, and how he hopes the event will impact the industry. He also addressed the absence of Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” Netflix’s fall slate, and the Cannes 2020 selection. Venice runs September 2 – 12.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What was the turning point where you realized you could actually program this year’s festival?

For a long time, we did not think we would be able to justify the huge investment and cost involved and so on. It was only at the beginning of June that we became more confident about the possibility to organize the festival under good circumstances. We realized we could invite at least 50 films, and we wound up with more than that. At the moment we have announced 52 titles from more than 50 countries.

When we became aware of the possibility of having a festival, uncertainty was the dominant feeling until the very end. We didn’t know which films could be really available, who would accept our invitations or not. It was a continuous stop-and-go. One day, we were more optimistic; the following day, we’d receive bad news because of release dates being postponed. It wasn’t easy at all to organize a festival under these conditions. There have been a couple of films that we haven’t received confirmation yet on, but we hope to have a couple more things soon.

Who’s actually going to the festival this year?

We know that all the filmmakers and talent from Europe will come. They want to come, and they are able to come. It’s more complicated and difficult for the ones coming from other regions of the world. The borders of Europe have been closed. We have to wait a little bit more to understand if the restrictions will be less tough during the beginning of September, and if there will be a chance to welcome guests from some countries in lockdown at the moment, like the U.S. We know that some people from China will be able to attend. We don’t know about the ones from Australia, India, South America. Some, if not most of them, won’t be able to travel, but they are willing to do it. We’ll organize press conferences online and interviews on Zoom to ensure that they are able to promote their films.

What about your jury president, Cate Blanchett?

Cate Blanchett at the Talents Table Talk: Places like Home at the Berlinale Talent Campus at the Berlinale 2020 / 70th Berlin International Film Festival at HAU 1. Berlin, February 24, 2020 | usage worldwide Photo by: Snapshot/Tobias Seeliger/Geisler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Cate Blanchett

Snapshot/Tobias Seeliger/Geisler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

She will be here, for sure. She lives in London and she doesn’t have any problem with attending from there. I am in contact with her on a daily basis. She is absolutely sure she will attend Venice. She wants to support the festival to show the world that this is a moment to restart everything for cinema, that we need to come back to theaters, we need to restart film production. She’s extremely collaborative and willing to do her best to support the festival.

How has the festival environment adapted to new safety standards? My experiences at film festivals have always involved crowds.

The festival takes place on a small island, which is very quiet, and makes it very easy to put some strict safety measures in place. We will have eight different points of access to the festival area where we can have our first temperature checks for people attending the festival. Then we will have to respect social distancing in theaters. We will use only 50 percent of the seats in each venue. Everybody will have to reserve a seat in advance. They will have to come with a ticket and a seat number. It will be easy to access the theater safely. We want everybody to come to the festival without taking any risks when they do so.

So what is the protocol if someone gets sick?

Since everybody has to reserve a seat, it means that we can monitor all the participants of the festival. We know in which theaters they have been, where they where seated, the people they were close to. So, if it’s necessary, we are able to inform everybody immediately.

As the pandemic continued, many expected Venice to focus primarily on supporting the Italian film industry. The biggest Italian film set to come out this year, Nanni Moretti’s “Tre Piani,” reportedly waited for Cannes 2021. How did the rest of the Italian selection come about?

The only Italian filmmaker who decided to wait until next year was Moretti. All the other Italian filmmakers and producers were absolutely willing to come to Venice. They submitted everything that was ready in time for us to watch. I’m quite happy because the quality of Italian films is very high this year. It’s a confirmation of the good space that Italian cinema is in.

How did you address filmmakers and reps who wanted to wait for 2021?

Of course, there are some other filmmakers in other countries that made different choices. There were a lot of French films that are almost done or couldn’t be ready in time for Venice. They decided to postpone and wait for Cannes. It’s a personal choice that I respect. I tried to discuss with them the side effects of this situation. If theaters reopen — and they will reopen, in most cases, by the fall — but most of the good films are postponed for next year, why should the audience want to come back? It’s a risky situation. But we’ll see. The situation is so complicated and unprecedented that it’s difficult to make the right decision under these circumstances.

Why are there so few American films in the lineup?

We are still discussing several titles with producers and we’ll see in the next few days if they can come or not.

This is where I ask you about the absence of Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks.”

Sofia Coppola John Waters beguiled

Sofia Coppola and John Waters at the Provincetown International Film Festival.

Photo by Mae Gammino

It was in discussion until a few days ago. Finally, the distributors decided not to take the risk, to postpone the release date. [According to A24, the film has not officially been dated yet.] This was a title that we desperately wanted to have for Venice. We had an ongoing discussion for months about this film, but it’s over.

Her niece, Gia Coppola, was in the lineup before with her first feature, “Palo Alto.” How does her new competition entry, “Mainstream,” compare?

It’s a bigger film in terms of budget, it’s more ambitious, and has a bigger cast with Andrew Garfield in the main role. It’s less intimate and personal than the last one, but it’s a topic that is very contemporary. It’s the story of a social media influencer and the way he loses control of his profile. It’s very interesting.

Another second feature in your competition comes from India. Chaitanya Tamnhane’s debut “Court” was a sleeper hit on the festival circuit in 2014. His new film, “The Disciple,” is the first Indian film in competition in nearly 20 years.

It’s a very demanding movie, rigorous from every point of view, from narration to style to the way it treats the characters. It’s very beautiful and stylish. He got a lot of support from Alfonso Cuaron on this film because Alfonso really loves this filmmaker — and I completely agree with him.

You programmed Frederick Wiseman’s “City Hall” out of competition. His last one, “Ex Libris, – The New York Public Library,” was in competition. What changed this time?

Wiseman’s film is a four-hour documentary about Boston city hall. It’s another beautiful chapter of his research into the main institutions in American society, after “At Berkeley” and “Ex Libris.” It’s gorgeous and surprising — really sort of a lesson about the pillars of our democracy. We asked ourselves if it was right or not to put the film in competition. But we had so many good films that we decided Fred had his own recognition and loyal audience, so he’ll get all the attention he deserves anyway. He accepted and we’re very grateful to him for that.

Last year, there were only two films directed by women in the competition section. This year, eight out of the 18 films — 44 percent, nearly gender parity — are directed by women. How did you address deficiencies in the programming process to improve your numbers here?

Actually, we didn’t change anything in the selection process. We didn’t have any prejudice against women in the past and we didn’t change the criteria of the selection this year. We didn’t choose films by using any kind of gender protocols. We stuck to choosing films based only on their quality. We were lucky enough to find a lot of extremely good female-directed films this year and extremely happy to have eight films directed by women this year out of 18 titles. It’s a very lucky and helpful coincidence that there were so many good films directed by women. It very, very easy to decide to put all of them in the main competition. I hope to get rid of all the problems we’ve raised in the past about this. We support the fight by women to receive fair treatment in the industry as well as society as a whole.

Did you see any changes in terms of the volume of women directors submitting to the festival?

Not really. Around 23 percent of the submissions were directed by women, which is the same as last year. Luckily enough, more than 28 percent of the films in the Venice lineup overall are made by women this year. It’s a great success for the festival to meet this expectation coming from all over the world.

Chloe Zhao’s film “Nomadland” is one of those films. At your press conference, you said it had real Oscar potential, a prediction you made last year for “Joker.” Explain this year’s prognostication.

Frances McDormand in the film NOMADLAND. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

“Nomadland”

Searchlight Pictures

I love the film. It’s extremely original, personal, touching, moving — with a great performance by Frances McDormand — so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the film is one of the contenders for the Oscars this year. When you see the film, you’ll understand why I’m so proud to support it with our colleagues in New York, Toronto, and Telluride. We all fell in love with it. It’s not a big movie in terms of scale. I don’t know what Fox Searchlight’s expectations are in terms of box office, but it’s beautiful, touching, original, and very personal. It could become a huge success if it’s promoted well and grows with more audience attention.

You have one film out of competition, Andrea Segre’s “Molecole,” made during the lockdown. But you said in the press conference that you saw others. How did you land on this one?

We saw a lot of films that were shot during the lockdown, either with iPhones or inside apartments or whatever. Most of them couldn’t become something more than a sort of chronicle of living in lockdown. The film by Andrea Segre was shot in Venice two weeks right after the cancellation of the carnival in Venice and before the closing down on March 8. The city was already completely empty; the tourists had all left. Andrea started to shoot in this empty city and then he added a very personal narration with his memories of his father who came from Venice, and was also a filmmaker there during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He reflects on his isolation during the pandemic, confronting his memories. It’s very emotional. That’s why we picked this one over all the others submitted to us.

Earlier this year, Cannes announced a selection of 56 films even though it was unable to hold the 2020 festival. None of them are in your lineup. Why did Venice decide not to program any of these?

Thierry Fremaux is a good friend and we’ve been in touch on a weekly basis during the lockdown. I would say that since the beginning we wanted to find a way to collaborate. We exchanged information, opinions, doubts, whatever. We started to discuss some ideas, but the situation was changing constantly, so every proposal became old very quickly. At a certain point, we realized that it didn’t make any sense to share one selection between Cannes and Venice. So we gave up that idea. Thierry decided to make his own selection with the label of “Cannes 2020,” and I realized that there were many, many films that weren’t ready in time for Cannes.

Also, most of the films in the Cannes selection will travel to other festivals — San Sebastian, Toronto, Rome, Deauville, and others — so there was no real need to invite films that would have their own promoters in other places. We decided to pick up 60 new films that we could support, which enlarges the number of films that will be supported overall by the fall festivals. I think this is a better way to help the film industry under these particular circumstances. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t want to collaborate with Cannes. We are still discussing a project with them that we hope to disclose soon.

On the subject of access: Speaking as one of those Americans who can’t fly to Europe right now, how much of the lineup do you expect to be available for international press and industry?

The majority of the producers, filmmakers, and sales agents don’t want to do special screenings for anybody. I would love to be able to provide links to the press that can’t attend Venice in person, but I cannot force producers to make a different choice. Unfortunately, this is an opportunity that cannot be put in place.

In most years, you would have to answer questions about programming Netflix films and the future of exhibition. Netflix made it clear it wouldn’t take films to fall festivals several months ago. How do you feel about that omission?

Scott Stuber, Alfonso Cuaron, and Ted Sarandos

They decided to be really strict in terms of lockdown. They won’t allow anyone to travel until the pandemic is over. As a consequence, they decided not to give any films to any festival until they feel it’s safe. We had a long discussion with Netflix. They kept saying that they would be supportive in the future, but under these circumstances they did not want to take any risks. I got a phone call from [Netflix executive] Scott Stuber only yesterday confirming that they are very sorry they can’t attend Venice this year, and they can’t send us anything. Most of their films aren’t ready, anyway. They will be back in the future. For this year, we have to accept their position.

Regardless of how Venice goes this year, the international film industry is facing an unprecedented disaster. Here in the U.S., most productions and theaters are shut down. You have spent the last several months watching new films and organizing a big public event. What gives you hope for the future?

This is extremely important to me. Venice will be the first major film event to take place, followed by Toronto, New York, San Sebastien, and others. Some festivals will be done on a smaller scale than usual, but the will to restart after the lockdown is a strong optimistic sign. We all share the feeling that we cannot wait any longer in a state of isolation unless the consequences are even worse than the ones we’ve had to go through in the past months. The festival can play a role here. We can show that it’s possible to go back to theaters safely with the process we’ve put in place. Let’s hope that when Venice happens, it can be an example for everyone. There is so much fear, doubt, and uncertainty going around. We need to make an effort to restart. Otherwise, it would be a disaster for the entirety of film culture.   

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